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Gianni Schicci & Bluebeard’s Castle at Komische Oper

© Monika Rittershaus

Other than to fill a two-hour programme, there seems to be little logic behind the merging of the two one-act operas premiered on Sunday night at the Komische Oper Berlin. Giacamo Puccini’s Gianni Schicci is uncomplicatedly comic, whilst Béla Bartók’s menacing Bluebeard’s Castle explores the ‘mystery of the soul’. Despite their stark contrasts, however, their combination not as incongruous as one might imagine.

This was not, however, initially a concern for Calixto Bieito’s incredibly unsubtle staging of Gianni Schicci. The humour was obvious, with the inclusion of inflatable sex dolls, farting, and costumes that could only be described as trashy. Even the famous aria, “O mio babbino caro”, was avoided any sincerity. Sung by the young lover Lauretta, her aria stands out from the rest of the opera not only for its indulgent melodicism, but also for the innocent love that it expresses in contrast to the shallow feuding of Buoso’s relatives. But Lauretta, played by Kim-Lillian Strebel, wore childish pigtails and geeky glasses. Though it was still a beautiful declaration of love (with particularly pleasurable high-notes from Strebel), it also poked fun at the over-blown sentimentality of Romantic operas.

There was no interval between the two operas, meaning that together they constituted one continuous performance. Bluebeard’s Castle has only two characters: Herzog Bluebeard and his lover Judith. Nevertheless, the fierce chemistry between Gidon Saks as Bluebeard and Ausrine Stundyte as Judith meant they had little difficulty in captivating their audience. A simple look between them could be extraordinarily expressive, whilst Stundyte highly expressive singing entirely convinced us of her passion for Bluebeard.

© Monika Rittershaus

Juxtaposed in this way, the contrasts between the two operas were striking. But as Bluebeard’s Castle progressed, it was clear that their combination did have an overarching significance. The scenery remained the same from the end of Gianni Schicci, so Bluebeard’s Castle started from what had been Buoso’s bedroom. It was a bedroom that could be anyone’s, suggesting that the abstract delving of the human soul that we were about to witness could be anyone’s too. During Bluebeard’s Castle, the scenery gradually morphed into something darker and more abstract. What had been comic and silly in the Gianni Schicci was shown to have something more menacing beneath.

Bartók never tells us in Bluebeard’s Castle how Judith came to fall in love with such a questionable character as Bluebeard. But Bieito’s staging offered one suggestion. In Gianni Schicci it was easy to be charmed by its simple humour and lyrical melodies. Bieito suggests that this is how Judith came to fall in love with Bluebeard. It was only when Judith delved deeper, when she tried to discover Bluebeard’s hidden secrets, that she find that things are rarely as straightforwardly joyous as initially believed.

Giacomo Puccini Gianni Schicci
Béla Bartók Bluebeard’s Castle

Musical direction Henrik Nánási
Staging Calixto Bieito
The Komische Oper Berlin

I am an arts and culture writer currently based in Berlin. As well as writing for Berlin Logs, I have contributed to The Economist, Fanfare Magazine, and Seen and Heard. Follow me on Twitter: @hazel_rowland. Or visit my blog.

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